Educating Syrian Refugees in Turkey

Kinana Qaddour 

Though challenges remain, Turkey is pushing forward with efforts to integrate Syrian students and teachers into its education system.

As of the 2016-2017 academic school year, according to the Turkish Ministry of National Education (MoNE), only 380,000 out of 870,000 school-aged Syrian children (40 percent) remain out of school, making it the first time “more Syrian children are in school than out” in Turkey. When Syrians students first arrived in Turkey, a majority attended “Temporary Education Centers” (TECs), which are supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). The TECs have become “Transitional Education Centers,” as the Turkish MoNE plans to integrate all Syrians into Turkish state schools by 2020. Several challenges hinder genuine efforts for integration, including language barriers, limited training of Syrian teachers on Turkish curricula, the lack of trauma-sensitive instruction that takes students’ psychological needs into account, and discrimination faced by both Syrian students and teachers. Yet overall, Syrians in Turkey praise and applaud the Turkish framework for integration.1

Since they began, TECs have not required identification and school transcripts, and although there are reports of new screenings as of March 2016, most still do not. Enrollment has remained largely open in nearly 300 TECs in camps and urban areas throughout Turkey, although dropout and absentee rates remain high—despite financial incentives for students with near-perfect attendance, around 60 Turkish lira ($16) per month for female students and 50 lira ($13) for male students.2 In terms of content, from 2011 to 2015, the centers implemented a modified Arabic version of the official Syrian curriculum without the mandatory “nationalism” courses that push Syrian state propaganda.

In early 2015, the MoNE decided that educational needs of Syrian children would no longer be “temporary” and in the 2016-2017 school year began preparing students for enrollment in Turkish state schools.3 In 2016, the MoNE stopped offering first, fifth, and ninth grades in order to push students of these levels to enroll in a Turkish state school. In 2017, second, sixth, and tenth grades were also cut. The coastal province of Mersin has fully integrated, but in southern Turkey, Gaziantep and Sanliurfa provinces TECs are still in the transition process, which aims to be completed by 2020.4 As of September 2017, over 315,000 Syrian students attend Turkish state schools, about 64 percent of the Syrian children currently in school. This immediate integration for high school students has resulted in high rates of dropouts.5 Moreover, in Antakya one parent shared that, despite proof of naturalized Turkish citizenship, the administrator of the local Turkish state school did not allow them to enroll their children.6 Despite the preference of the MoNE and local education directorates for Syrian students to enroll in state schools, this case shows that this right is not always guaranteed.

Language has been one barrier for Syrian students in this framework for integration. In anticipation of this challenge, TECs have reduced the number of hours in Arabic to accommodate Turkish instruction; about 15 hours in Arabic and 15 hours in Turkish, up from seven hours in Turkish previously.7 This is done to prepare for fully Turkish language instruction once students are moved to state schools, which ideally would offer Syrian students diagnostic exams to properly assess their level of Turkish. Syrian students have learned Turkish at differing paces, and some have also taken private courses in addition to lessons at TECs, making some more proficient than others. Due to oversight by school administrations and general inconsistency from school to school, students’ Turkish proficiency is not always assessed when they enter state schools. Some students who were proficient enough to take courses taught in Turkish were not given the opportunity to be tested, and were required to complete all levels of Turkish designated by the school, starting with the alphabet. Students with intermediate proficiency would benefit from having their level assessed to avoid repeating levels of Turkish they have completed, causing them to delay the transition from language courses to general education and fall behind their Turkish peers. Additionally, dividing Syrian students into separate classrooms based on their proficiency in Turkish would allow teachers to better reach all learners.

The Turkish language barrier is linked to a greater issue of integration, and buy-in from Syrian communities demonstrates how language can have an impact on inclusion. For fear of seeing their children lose native Arabic language skills, Syrian parents—especially those who see a possibility of returning to Syria—have expressed their hesitancy to send their children to Turkish schools, and some have pursued at-home course options based on Sudanese and Libyan curricula. These curricula have gained prominence in Turkey because both are fully in Arabic and provide accessible, accredited certificates for students. For Syrian students, the interlinking of language and integration leaves some in a state of limbo as they struggle to reconcile their Syrian background and the desire to feel included in Turkish society.

Language is also a barrier for teachers hired in Turkish public schools. One teacher in Mersin shared the insecurity she felt as a beginner-level Turkish speaker. “I would enter the classroom with the Turkish teacher; she would give the lecture, then look at me and ask me to translate the entire lesson at once… I looked unintelligent in front of the students,” she shared. Though many Syrian teachers interviewed expressed their strong desire to become fluent in Turkish, their ability to become proficient has been hindered by the stress of displacement and lack of time for Turkish courses in between teaching schedules. Another teacher in Mersin shared that Syrian teachers had accordingly been used as “assistants,” not for their content knowledge and pedagogy skills. In the southern province of Gaziantep, teachers indicated that only Syrian teachers with a strong knowledge of Turkish were selected to attend training sessions, which also did not include co-teaching methods for harmonizing lessons for Turkish- and Arabic-speaking students.

Syrian teachers face other challenges as well. While interviewed teachers shared positive experiences with Turkish staff in both TECs and state schools with significant Syrian student population, they discussed the MoNE’s dilemma to accommodate both unemployed Turkish teachers as well as Syrian teachers. Even though Syrian teachers receive their salaries through UNICEF and work only ten hours per week, fewer than their Turkish counterparts, many have felt that this competition for employment makes them a burden on the Turkish system which only adds to other challenges they face. Teachers said administrators, especially those who set an example for inclusivity and diversity among staff, provided helpful leadership. Despite this support, some teachers have experienced a lack of respect from Turkish colleagues, which hinders meaningful collaboration. For example, Syrian teachers were referred to as Suriye Kadınları (“Syrian women”) by fellow teachers, rather than öğretmen, as teachers in Turkey are called. Also, teachers in Gaziantep shared that self-segregation was common in teachers’ lounges, despite pushes from school administrators for collaboration. Such a difference contributes to the view among some Turkish students that their Syrian teachers as unequal to their Turkish ones.

The ministry’s planning for greater student integration and inclusivity also includes the “Promoting Integration of Syrian Children into Turkish Education System” (PICTES) initiative. The European Union financially and operationally supports this ongoing initiative, which includes Turkish language support and psychosocial provisions such as extracurricular courses in music and art. The project has supported students in 23 provinces of Turkey so far. Nearly 6,000 Turkish instructors have been assigned to learning centers, among them counsellors to support Syrian students. Not only do these counsellors help with bullying, but also challenges at home that impact performance in school. Unfortunately, lack of contextual knowledge and language still posed barriers between students and support staff and further deepens the isolation some Syrian students face in new schools. One teacher in Gaziantep shared how a Turkish counselor was hired at a local TEC, “But the students could not speak with him… There needs to be someone who understands students’ culture and native language for sensitive topics.” And state schools in underserved communities, such as those throughout Sanliurfa, are not equipped to address psychosocial needs and domestic issues that impact learning. This is especially unfortunate given the impact socio-economic challenges have on learning and inclusion.

With support from other stakeholders, such as UNICEF and the European Union, the MoNE’s policies and initiatives demonstrate Turkey’s commitment to providing Syrians with a quality education. As more Syrian students integrate Turkish state schools, additional advocacy efforts to boost commitment and interest from host communities can improve school cohesion, properly prepare Syrian teachers to contribute to the education workforce, and combat bullying and climbing dropout rates. Doing so through the renewal of these commitments made by the MoNE and Turkish government is essential for the long-term success of school integration of Syrians in Turkey.

* This article is based on interviews with Syrian teachers, parents, and students directly and through third-parties in Mersin, Gaziantep, Sanliurfa, and Antakya in September and October 2017.

Kinana Qaddour is a Syrian-American teacher with experience in training and youth initiatives for the Syria humanitarian response. Follow her on Twitter @kqaddour.

1. Interviews with Syrian teachers and parents in Turkey throughout 2016 and 2017.
2. Interviews with teachers and UNICEF Syria response staff, Gaziantep, October 2017.
3. Interview with UNICEF staff member, Gaziantep, October 2017.
4. Interviews with teachers in Mersin, Sanliurfa, and Gaziantep, September and October 2017.
5. Interview with UNICEF program staff, Gaziantep, October 2017.
6. Interview with Syrian family, Antakya, October 2017.
7. Interviews with Syrian teachers and students, September and October 2017.


Carnegie MENAI

Post Author: Estonian Centre fot Islamic and Middle-Eastern Studies

The aim of the Estonian Centre fot Islamic and Middle-Eastern Studies is to analyse and popularise different topics related to the Middle-East and Islam such as religion, politics, society, history, economics, etc. in academic as well as popular contexts. The goal is to propagate and instigate wider discussions in society.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *